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Dissent Is as American as Cherry Pie

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The following is a commencement address I delivered today to the graduates of Oberlin College.

Congratulations to everyone in the Oberlin class of 2009 -- but also to your friends and teachers and, above all, your parents. I don't know if it took a village to get you where you are today, but I expect it took a great many people giving a great deal.

I am both happy and surprised to be with you today. I am happy because commencements are happy occasions. People sitting here are no doubt happy for different reasons, but happy all the same. It is best to leave it at that. At the risk of being un-Oberlinian, we don't need to deconstruct and analyze every positive emotion until we can no longer recall just why we felt good about something.

I am also, as I said, surprised to be with you. President Krislov, you may not know what I am about to say, but my connection to Oberlin was a close call. It was the summer of 1969, and several months after graduating high school I was still waiting to find out if Oberlin would take me. I was anxious, because I'd been rejected from all but one of the other schools I had applied to. It was so bad that one school rejected me twice. In the end, Oberlin did take me, although it did so with what might be described as finite enthusiasm. Reportedly, the admissions director at the time grew tired of the deliberations, threw up his hands, and exclaimed, "What the hell, one more won't matter."

I am confident in saying that Oberlin did more for me than vice versa. I took a fantastic class in religion, which led me to archaeology, which got me to the Middle East, which led me to international relations, which launched me on my career. So don't worry if you don't know what comes next or after next.

I arrived here 40 years ago. It was a time of intense protest. Vietnam was the dominant issue of the day. It was May 1970, the end of my freshman year, when the United States sent troops into Cambodia in an effort to interrupt North Vietnamese supply lines. Campuses across the country rose in protest. At nearby Kent State, four students lost their lives in a confrontation with National Guardsmen. Kent State closed, and many of its students made Oberlin their temporary home. If my memory serves me right, we never took finals that year. Somehow, both we students and the College survived.

I expect that many of you did more than your share of protesting during your years here. For better or worse, though, your years of campus protest are likely to be mostly or entirely behind you. But protest is not behind you. You will always be a part of organizations where you find yourself disagreeing. So what I want to talk about today is what I've learned about protest, about how to register dissent, about when to stay and fight, when to concede, and when to move on.

Let me turn back nearly seven years. It was early July 2002, and I went to meet Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's national security advisor, in her West Wing office. I was seeing Condi in my capacity as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff.

As usual, I prepared on a yellow pad a list of the half-dozen or so issues I wanted to discuss during what normally was a thirty- or forty-five-minute meeting. At the top of my list was Iraq. For several weeks, those on my staff who dealt with Iraq and other Middle East issues had been reporting they sensed a shift, namely, that those at their level working at the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and under Vice President Dick Cheney (all of whom favored going to war with Iraq) were sending signals that things were going their way. I did not share this enthusiasm for going to war. I believed we could take other steps that could deal satisfactorily with the challenges posed by Saddam Hussein. I also feared that going to war would be much tougher than the advocates predicted. My related concern was that it would take an enormous toll on the rest of American foreign policy at the precise moment in history that the United States enjoyed a rare opportunity to shape the trajectory of international relations.

I began my meeting with Condi by noting that the administration seemed to be building momentum toward going to war with Iraq and that I harbored serious doubts about the wisdom of doing so. I reminded her that I knew something about this issue given my background in the Middle East (I didn't mention Oberlin in particular but maybe I should have) and my role in the previous Bush administration, where I was the senior Middle East advisor to President George H.W. Bush during the Gulf war. So I asked her directly, "Are you really sure you want to make Iraq the centerpiece of the administration's foreign policy?"

I was about to follow up with other questions when Condi cut me off. "You can save your breath, Richard. The president has already made up his mind on Iraq." The way she said it made clear that he had decided to go to war.

This was eight months before the March 2003 start of the conflict.

I was taken aback by the blunt substance and tone of her answer. Policy had gone much further than I had realized -- and feared. I did not argue at that moment, for several reasons. As in previous conversations when I had voiced my views on Iraq, Condi's response made it clear that any more conversation at that point would be a waste of time. It is always important to pick your moments to make an unwelcome case, and this did not appear to be a promising one. I figured as well that there would be additional opportunities to argue my stance, if not with Condi, then with others in a position to make a difference.

Also accounting for my uncharacteristic reticence was the fact that my own opposition to going to war with Iraq was muted. At a recent dinner with two close friends, I had said I was 60/40 against initiating a war. My opposition was not stronger because of my assumption (derived from the available intelligence) that Iraq possessed both biological and chemical weapons. I also believed that if we went to war we would do so as we had in the previous Gulf war -- with considerable international and domestic support as well as with enough forces and sensible plans.

Had I known then what I know now, namely, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the war would be carried out with a marked absence of good judgment and competence, I would have been completely opposed. Still, even then, I leaned against proceeding, fearing it would be much more difficult than predicted given both the ambitious aims and the complex reality that was Iraq.

I was hardly the first U.S. official ever to be in a position of disagreeing with his bosses, and I will not be the last.

Dissent has been hailed as noble and necessary by our leaders. It was none other than President Dwight Eisenhower who said that Americans should "never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion." And it was former Senator J. William Fulbright who said that "in a democracy, dissent is an act of faith."

This is all well and good, but in my experience, dissent tends to be more honored in the abstract than in practice. Joseph Heller captures this reality all too well in his wicked 1979 political novel Good as Gold. Ralph, a presidential aide, tells a job applicant that "this President doesn't want yes-men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them."

Dissent is difficult. It can constitute a real dilemma for the person who disagrees. On one hand, you owe it to your conscience and your bosses to tell them what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Speaking truth to power is actually a form of loyalty. It is the best and at times only way to make sure that government (or any organization) lives up to its potential.

Other the other hand, though, no matter how good the advice, there will be times when it is resented or rejected. It may be on the merits; it may be politics or personalities. Sometimes, smart people just see things differently. It doesn't matter. As in baseball, no one gets a hit every time he comes to the plate; indeed, you are considered a star if you only fail two out of every three times you come to bat.

So what should you do when you are ignored or overruled? One option is to continue challenging the prevailing wisdom or preference. There is a real risk, though, that you will be shut out or just ignored.

To switch sports metaphors, the making of policy in government or any organization has something in common with football. Activity at any time during a game is concentrated on the part of the field near the line of scrimmage. It makes little sense to position yourself in the far end zone if you want to be a factor.

Much the same holds for policy. If all the interest and attention is focused on one set of questions, it is usually of little or no value to place yourself totally outside the debate and raise concerns that are judged to be irrelevant or questions that are deemed to be settled.

For me this dilemma was anything but an abstraction. The decision to attack Iraq was arguably the defining decision of George W. Bush's presidency. I thought then and I think now that this was not a war of necessity. Viable alternatives existed. This was a war of choice. And I thought the Iraq war was the wrong choice.

In such situations there are several options. One option in principle that to me was not an option in practice was to leak my objections to the media or to try to otherwise undermine the policy. This is not dissent but disloyalty.

More broadly, dissent is not about breaking the law or infringing the rights of others. If one does break the law, he or she should pay the price, as Thoreau clearly understood. And dissent should not come at the expense of the rights of others. This, too, is an American tradition and, I would like to think, an Oberlin tradition as well.

Another option was to continue to argue against the war in Iraq after a decision was all but made to go ahead. I did some of this but not a lot. While it may have made me and other skeptics feel better, it would have reduced any influence we might have had on planning for the war and its aftermath. There are times you have to let go and move on, and this was one of them.

In this case, moving on meant focusing on how the war would be planned and fought. I advocated for involving the Congress and the United Nations in the decision-making and planning. I calculated I could still influence important aspects of the policy if not its core.

There is a danger in this. It is easy to be seduced by proximity to power or money or privilege. It is easy to rationalize when in reality you become little more than an enabler.

One way to avoid this danger is to resign. Leaving is in many ways the most dramatic form of dissent. Putting aside personal reasons (health, finances, family) there are two potentially valid, policy-related reasons for resigning. (Neither of these, by the way, is the peculiarly British tradition of resigning when something goes wrong on your watch. It may not have been your fault, and even if it was, you may still be able to do more good than harm by staying.)

One reason to resign is because you disagree fundamentally with a major decision. Several people resigned from the National Security Council staff over the Nixon administration's May 1970 decision to expand the Vietnam war into Cambodia, the decision I referred to earlier in describing this campus 39 years ago. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned in 1980 over President Carter's decision to use force to try to free the American hostages being held in Iran. Several relatively junior foreign service officers resigned over the lack of a robust American response to Serbian brutality in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Iraq obviously constituted a major issue, and although I disagreed with the thrust of U.S. policy, I did not resign even though many people then and since thought I should have. My reasoning was straightforward: I was 60/40 against going to war. No organization could function if people left every time they lost out on a 60/40 decision. Had I known then what I know now, that Iraq no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction, it would have become a 90/10 decision against the war, and in that circumstance I would have left had President George W. Bush gone ahead all the same. But that was not the situation as I understood it.

In time I did leave, however. Candor requires I admit I was open to leaving. This relates to the second set of grounds for resigning, namely, a pattern of decisions that makes clear you have little in common with your colleagues. I was losing far more arguments than I was winning inside the administration, not just on Iraq, but on Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, climate change, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the International Criminal Court. I was someone who favored diplomacy and collective efforts in an administration that was at best suspicious of such approaches and often flat out opposed.

Adding to the frustration was the fact that I was frequently called upon to defend in public and to foreign officials policies that I opposed. Cordell Hull, FDR's secretary of state, described himself to a friend as "tired of being relied upon in public and ignored in private." I empathized all too well. On many occasions I had to rebut to outsiders precisely the arguments I myself had put forward inside the U.S. government. That this occurs on occasion is inevitable and part of what any professional must expect to deal with. But when it becomes the norm it is time to consider whether what you are doing makes sense.

So let me sum up. Dissent will be and should be part of your lives. This country was born of dissent (the Revolutionary War), defined by it (the Civil War), and changed profoundly by it. The labor, suffrage, and civil rights movements as well as the anti-Vietnam protests all come to mind. Dissent is as American as cherry pie. It is also as Oberlinian as... tofu.

Whatever you choose to do, wherever you choose to do it, you owe it to your bosses and your conscience to be intellectually honest. Still, think through when it is worth dissenting and how to go about it. Resigning is not always the right answer, though you need to consider it if the differences are large in scale or number. Staying where you are and trying to influence decisions from the inside may be the best option, but be sure you are making a positive difference. Practice your right of dissent, but tolerate and encourage it for others, too.

Congratulations on reaching today, and good luck on every day that follows. Thank you for this opportunity and the honor of sharing this important day in your lives with you.

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